US grants visa to Smotrich, bucking progressive calls to bar him over Huwara remark

Finance minister will address Israel Bonds conference, less than two weeks after calling to ‘wipe out’ Palestinian town before walking back demand and apologizing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, waves an Israeli flag during the annual 'Flags March' next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
File: MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, waves an Israeli flag during the annual 'Flags March' next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The United States on Thursday approved a diplomatic visa for Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to enter the country, a week after he sparked an outcry in Israel and overseas for calling to “wipe out” a Palestinian town where two Israeli brothers had been killed in a terrorist attack, a spokesman for the minister told The Times of Israel.

Smotrich is slated on Sunday evening to address the annual Washington conference of Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad. He will also be meeting with a director of the International Monetary Fund. traveling to New York for additional engagements on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter.

While he has been spurned by the Conservative and Reform movements in the US, JTA reported Thursday that Smotrich will meet with the Orthodox Union’s leadership in Washington.

Already a controversial figure in the US, particularly in the Jewish community, over previous remarks against the LGBTQ community, Arabs, Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews, Smotrich faced calls to be barred entry into the US after his comments.

Progressive Jewish groups J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and T’ruah urged the Biden administration not to grant him a visa and joined 70 other groups Thursday in signing a pledge not to host Smotrich when he’s in town. Over 130 American Jewish leaders, including those affiliated with more centrist groups, signed onto a separate statement on Friday declaring that the minister “should not be given a platform in our community.”

The finance minister was asked during a March 1 on-stage interview why he had “liked” a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion, issued soon after the terror attack, that called “to wipe out the village of Huwara today.”

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied, adding that “God forbid” the job be done by private citizens.

Extremist settlers had responded to the terror attack by rampaging through the Nablus-area town and setting homes and cars on fire, resulting in one Palestinian shot dead and several badly hurt — a rampage that Smotrich condemned.

Settlers pray as cars and homes burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of the body that authorizes settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes in much of the West Bank. That area of authority includes large parts of Huwara, in the northern West Bank, where some 7,000 Palestinians live.

The US State Department called the original comments “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting” and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to repudiate Smotrich’s “incitement to violence.”

The finance minister subsequently issued a statement claiming the media was trying to “create a distorted interpretation” of his remarks. He said Huwara was a “hostile village” where residents throw rocks and shoot at Israelis and that he supports a “disproportionate response” by the IDF in order to establish deterrence. He later clarified that he didn’t mean to say that the entire village should be wiped out, rather that the military should act in a “targeted manner” against the terrorists in the village.

The Biden administration subsequently held talks on whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa into the US on grounds that he had incited violence and encouraged a war crime, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel last week.

However, the White House sufficed with issuing a statement on Thursday, saying that no US government officials would meet with Smotrich when he’s in town, already then indicating that this was as far the administration planned to go with its protest.

On Wednesday, Smotrich issued a lengthy Facebook post in which he apologized for his comments and said they warranted “soul-searching” on his part. He said that he did not realize that they would be interpreted by dozens of Israeli Air Force pilots as a potential military command to indiscriminately eradicate an entire Palestinian village.

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